At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: December 3, 1892


 

       A few snowflakes were falling, but there was no danger of a storm. The clouds were thin, but sufficiently strong to hold the sun, so there was no glare from the ice. The wind was altogether dead or rose softly now and then with almost a warm stroke in it, blowing loose snow and little particles of ice and wisps of straw across the smooth surface. Fifteen miles away a farm house stood on a bluff overlooking the canal, and we knew good cheer was there, and a Canadian welcome and clear ice every stroke of the way. Or the clear ice was only a rumor; it might be open or shaly or porous, or we might have to walk around the rapids of the river or—a hundred other things that those bent on staying at home fling in the path of one determined to go abroad. When the ice holds, a man is almost sure to find good skating if he will look for it; so we started. Out of the city, where the barges are frozen in, the cheery smoke yet pouring from their red-curtained cabins; where gangs of boys are playing confused games of shinny, where a youth will stand a whole hour to get one whack at a rubber ball, but what a whack! and how he glories in it for two days after, breaking every conversation with a—"but did you see the swipe I gave it"! Then under the bridges, where the cinders from the engines hold you back for a second or two; then down the bends, where you meet solitary skaters speeding away, or whole parties circling slowly about; then through the cut where every breathless urchin roars at you that the ice isn't safe above; then a whole stretch where you meet no one until you reach the first lock. There you are likely to find a pioneer returning from the wilderness and bringing good news with him. Hail fellow-enthusiast! who, with one skate bound on with straps and the other with a piece of rope, hast ventured, Columbus-like, into the unknown, led on by thine adventurous spirit, and with no companion save thy trusty "shinny"; we will take thy laconic advice to "hug the bank and look out for shales." So we go clumping over the locks, never waiting to take off our skates, but rushing at the mile of clear ice, mellow as velvet, colored like sea water, with the overflow yellow like cream. Then over another lock and out onto the river. Close under the bank, dodging the over-hanging trees, and edging away from the black ice, black as night and full of little starry bubbles. What a pace our leader is cutting out! You hear him go crashing into the shale, and before you well know it you are into the place yourself and by it. You hear the long, snarling rip when he strikes the ice frozen from the overflow, and before anyone can stop every one breaks through and goes hopping along like mad to keep from falling. And now he has found the black ice holds, and we go swooping out on it as if we were flying. Mile after mile. Not a stroke lost; past huge butternuts straggling on the shore, and whole groves of maples standing closely together, wrapped in the pinkish lustre from their own stems, and lonely pines, set high on the frozen shore. Then the sun sets and the air grows colder; we feel it on our thighs as we force them through with the stroke, and it blows a long, surging wraith of snow with it. The ice gives a long boom and splits under our feet. The clear lemon-yellow flares in the west. One star comes out. There are lights on the shore. Then voices hail us, and, taking off our skates, we discover how hard it is to walk, and go stumbling up the bank to the house. We had skated fifteen miles, and this is what we had for supper:—Baked pike, stuffed with spices, baked potatoes, home-made bread, cider-apple sauce, pumpkin pie, sage cheese, currant loaf and fritters and maple syrup.
                                                                                                                S.

       Now and then, when I meet in any of our literary journals that hysterical shriek, "Have we a literature?" I turn in my despair to that elaborate compendium, "The Songs of the Great Dominion," which is regarded by many as containing the canon of the Canadian Parnassus. And if I do not emerge therefrom quite as comforted and refreshed as I ought to be, I do not need to be asked why, save by those who have not perused the volume. So far as heroic labor is concerned, Mr. Lighthall deserves the place he has made for himself as the latest patron of all persons living in the Dominion who at any time or other have been ambitious to express themselves in rhyme, the most important of which, at least judged from his patriotic standpoint, he has collected into a volume. No one knows now better than Mr. Lighthall does, that not more than a dozen of the sixty names mentioned in his anthology have ever laid serious claim to real poetical achievement, and that certainly not more than half that number have any title to lengthy remembrance even in Canada. The serious objections to be taken to this work, and they are grave objections, aside from the utter lack of literary standard observed in the volume, are that true Canadian literature as it now exists is neither represented nor even foreshadowed in its pages, and that Canada is represented as a crude colony, whose literature, if it could be called by such a name, is merely associated with superficial canoe and carnival songs, backwoods and Indian tales told in poor rhyme, and all tied together by pseudo-patriotic hurrahs, which are about as representative of our true nationality as they are of literature. Now, it is far from my purpose to cast any slur on a Canadian literary undertaking, and Mr. Lighthall, as a sincere and high-minded patriot, as a literary man of lofty ideals, commands our respect and serious consideration, and it is not in any carping spirit that I approach his work at this date. But, at the same time, we have a serious question to consider, if Mr. Lighthall's anthology is to be considered of any importance at all, and that question is, the fair representation of our best literature both abroad and in our own country. As far as Canada is concerned, Mr. Lighthall's anthology might even at this day be regarded as obsolete, in the light of the remarkable strides our literature has taken. But when we remember that this work is being sold in England and goes into the hands of cultured English men and women as representative of our best work and our claim for rank in the literature of the day, we cannot help but feel that we are being imposed upon, if such a term is not too hard under the circumstances. Now wonder that Sir Charles Dilke, on reading the book, set Canadian literature down as even inferior to that of Australia, while the truth is that as far as culture is concerned alone we rank with the best young writers to-day in the language. If editors of anthologies only knew that it is no compliment to an author, and often a serious injury to his prospects, to be represented by his poorest work, they would be more serious and unbiassed in their selections. It is very unfair to a number of authors to judge them all by the subject matter, as Mr. Lighthall has done. The writer who has no mere local interest has no prominence in this book. The result is a false basis for judgment and a general foreign misunderstanding as to our literature. To give one instance of the peculiar misrepresentation, the one writer who is sufficiently accentuated to raise him from the promiscuous heap is spoken of as "poet and canoeist," while the fact that he is a professor in a college is cast altogether into the shade.
                                                                                                                C.

       How painfully we take our amusement and how many intolerable things are done in the name of enjoyment. A room full of whist players is a spectacle to make a philosopher weep, and a progressive euchre party will turn the head of a sensitive man grey in a single night. More misery can be got out of a common dancing party than from an hour's outpour of one our popular preachers. How little genuine enjoyment is afforded by these things even to the young people who most assiduously cultivate them is apparent to anyone who will sit composedly for a few minutes in a quiet corner of some crowded drawing room and mark the medley of mechanical noises about him—the unreal laughter and phantastic gibberish that fill up the intervals of conversation. As a matter of fact, most of our every-day amusements are merely the result of a blind and hysterical desire to keep going, to be on the move and have nothing to do with heartfelt pleasure at all. Most of the enjoyments that we really have we find in those unregarded and unsought for hours which we profess to consider the most tedious hours of quiet and useful activity, when we are not thinking in the least of pleasure—hours touched with the tenderness of friendship or domestic love, with spirits kindled to a crystal flame by the earnestness of quiet and undemonstrative converse. These are the things that feed and succor the soul and redeem the melancholy of life.
                                                                                                                L.

       The failure of Mr. Mansfield's adaptation of "The Scarlet Letter" in New York shows the utter impossibility of producing objectively the subjective drama. No one who has read Hawthorne's greatest story can fail to see the masterly dramatic power of the book in its subtle analysis of the processes of a soul in its relations to one of the most tragic conditions of human life. And yet, the very act of putting such a work on the stage has the effect of robbing the drama, for a drama it is, of all its higher qualities as a life study, with which Hawthorne has invested it, and to accentuate for stage effect what is necessarily morbid and even coarse in such a picture.
                                                                                                                C.

       Mr. Swinburne, the heir proper to the laureateship, is beyond all other poets a lover of the sea. He carries his devotion almost to the point of madness, for he bathes in all seasons and all weathers, and is a most daring and persistent swimmer. There is a newspaper tale that not many years ago the poet while bathing on the coast of Normandy got into a dangerous current and was carried far out to sea. He was observed by a French fishing boat and picked up when at the very point of drowning. After he had recovered himself he sat in the bow of the boat and began chanting verses of Victor Hugo with a tone and aspect so weird and uncanny that the fishermen fell to consulting together whether they had not better throw him overboard again, as he might be the devil. Mr. Swinburne also makes it a boast that he never carries an umbrella. An old lady neighbor of his recently averred that there was something wrong in his 'ead, and it transpired that the reason for this conjecture was that she had seen him more than once standing uncovered in the middle of the road in a rainstorm, his face wearing an expression of perfect quiescence and placid abstraction.
                                                                                                                L.

Tennyson is said to have expressed a dislike of Venice, and the reason was that he was unable to get any good, honest English tobacco there.
                                                                                                                L.

       In the December number of The Cosmopolitan are contributions from two Canadians—a poem entitled "The Yule Guest" by Bliss Carman and an article on the poetry and personality of Alfred Tennyson by Dr. George Stewart of Quebec. Mr. Carman's poem is not by any means up to his standard, although there are lines and phrases in it full of the peculiar quality of his best work. Dr. Stewart's article is very interesting, the more so as it is written by one who had the rare advantage and satisfaction of knowing Tennyson personally.
                                                                                                                L.